Book review: A deadly mystery in the mountains of Russia
August 25, 2017
The most captivating books based on true events often materialize from relatively unknown starting points. All it takes is for one author to be ensnared by the potential of a story that would have otherwise slipped into the ether of obscurity. Donnie Eichar's "Dead Mountain; The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident," is one such recent publication.
Not unfamiliar with bringing the often mundane real world alive, Eichar, a documentary filmmaker, had, like most people, never heard of the events that came to be known by the name of the group's leader, Igor Dyatlov. Eichar came across the story on the internet, and he quickly became mesmerized by the unsolved tragic deaths of nine well-trained, young Soviet hikers high in the far reaches of Siberia in 1959.
The capable college students, all members of the Ural Polytechnic Institute's established and respected hiking club — seven men and two women — had set out on a winter hike that was part of the club's certification process. The students had to meet several set requirements to attain their Grade III, "Masters of Sport" ranking, and the nearby Ural Mountains were the ideal testing ground against which they could mark their progress and knowhow.
The group needed to travel for at least 186 miles, for a minimum of 16 days, eight of which were required to be in an area with no people, and six of which were meant to be in a tent. To document their expedition, the hikers kept a detailed diary and took many photos along the way.
But, when the students did not return for the start of term, and had been missing for 10 days, a search was ordered. When the bodies were found shortly into the search, the deceased individuals were scattered, well away from the canvas tent that had been their only protection against the brutal Siberian cold. Most of the victims were poorly dressed, with no shoes on their feet. From autopsy reports, and the scant and oddly vague records from the investigation, it was determined that six of the nine had succumbed to the cold, but the remaining three had died from blunt trauma injuries, and several of them had high levels of radiation on their woolen clothes.
Adding to the mystery, the tent was found a fair distance away, intact except for slash marks that were determined to have been made from the inside. The hikers' boots, stove, food and warm-weather gear was all properly and neatly in place, as though awaiting their owners' return. The question was, what had compelled nine seasoned winter hikers to abandon their only protection against the frigid weather to run out, barely clothed, into the swirling snows and arctic temperatures of the Ural Mountains?
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For three years following the incident, the area was closed to access, and the final report's conclusion stated that their deaths were the result of "an unknown compelling force." When Eichar found the story online, the mystery was still considered unanswered in spite of numerous books and decades of analysis by theorists.
The theories covered all bases, both the well-founded and the fantastical, a dusty accumulation of nearly 60 years of guess work and supposition … "avalanche, windstorm, murder, radiation exposure, escaped-prisoner attack, death by shock wave or explosion, death by nuclear waste, UFO's, aliens, a vicious bear attack, and a freak winter tornado" were all thrown out as possible answers. But in spite of all the armchair investigating, Eichar was surprised to learn that none of those who had looked into the mystery had ever bothered to visit the site where the tragedy had occurred in the winter weather conditions in which they had taken place.
He subsequently became so consumed by the mysteries surrounding the story that he was determined to go to great lengths to find out more, including a deep-winter trip to the scene of the event. Thus, the book deftly moves between three points in time: the hikers' own experiences as recorded in their diary and photos, the subsequent search party and initial Soviet investigative team, and the author's own retraced steps as he analyzed the puzzling tragedy.
"Dead Mountain" is a cohesive and thrilling look at a singular and extraordinary event that led to the death of nine promising young people. Eichar approaches the details with a commitment to the facts that would have impressed even Sherlock Holmes, who once famously stated, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
But, so remarkable were his final findings that Eichar says, "I don't remember Sherlock Holmes ever mentioning what you are supposed to do when you've eliminated everything improbable, and nothing is left." Luckily, Eichar persisted, and his final analysis, deeply rooted in science and careful investigation, makes for great reading.
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